It took me a while to figure out what it was about my recent visit to St. Peter’s Fiesta in Gloucester that felt so satisfying. All the usual pleasures were on hand: the all-ages crowds; the timeless allure of the various rigged tests of skill and strength; the patter of the sun-browned, sleepy-alert carnies; the entertainers who sang joosta like Julius La Rosa or Connie Francis; the swooping passage high overhead against the darkening sky of riders on a giant aerial swing, putting up their arms all together as the machine banked for a suspended moment before swinging back the other way.
It was a street festival, a carnival, and a community ritual all at once — there were boat races and a greasy pole contest and the blessing of the fleet, too — and it offered joy and meaning to locals and visitors alike.
But there was one more thing about it, an additional quality that made the experience seem heightened and special, that eluded me until, driving home that night with the exhausted kids zonked out in the back seat, I finally realized what it was. I was there for several hours, as sun-struck afternoon gave way to bright-lit evening, and I don’t recall seeing even one person staring at a small screen in the bent-over posture of distraction that has become a signature form of our time.
Even the most advanced smartphones were no match for the heady blend of sounds, smells, lights, colors, and surging humanity offered by St. Peter’s. Festival-goers went through the scene in the old-fashioned way, with their heads up, eagerly engaged with the action going on all around them, taking pleasure in one another’s pleasure and excited by one another’s excitement. That’s what had felt so atavistically good about the experience.
Soon everybody would go back to the grind, and the nose-to-screen oblivion that increasingly shapes public life would reassert itself. We all know that the virtual world has worked its way into how we engage and fail to engage the real world, but the process is also often invisible to us. You grow used to the new normal until some carnivalesque flash of insight sharpens your awareness of how strange that new normal really is. That’s what it’s like to live through a great cultural and technological transformation.
In the days after our visit to Gloucester, I tried to make time to take my daughters to the store where we get supplies for their fish tank. I could order everything online, of course, but we like the store: its rows of tanks filled with brightly colored fish, its mysterious undersea aroma, the patient, knowledgeable owner who likes to talk and lets the girls explore. We always come away from there satisfied. And for the same reason I try to buy books at a bookstore rather than online, I’d like to do our bit to keep the fish guy in business by spending a few dollars at his store.
But somehow, as the days passed, the free hour or so it would take to drive there, hang out a little, and drive back never quite seemed to materialize. Everybody was busy, things came up, and then the fish guy shut down for a while to change locations. We were running out of fish food. I broke down and bought it online. Fast, easy, done.
An online purchase, a trip to the fair, these are the most trivial of examples, but part of their value lies in their triviality. They show how you increasingly have to force your way from the path of least resistance in order to encounter and engage living human beings and to see and smell and touch some of the infinite things of interest that the world has to offer.
At stake in even the most minor everyday episode is how you connect to other people and the world around you.
When you look back and try to remember what it actually felt like to live through a great historical change, you’ll recall moments from everyday life lived with and against the grain of transformation.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His column appears regularly in the Globe.